It doesn’t seem so long ago that broccoli was a new-fangled thing. When it showed up in the seventies, it was a novelty vegetable with which early adopters could impress fellow gardeners and dinner party guests.
But it quickly became a family staple, the number one green for many kiwi kids. High in nutrients, particularly vitamin C, vitamin K, iron and potassium this attractive and versatile vege is a top seller all year round.
Broccoli is a member of the cabbage family (brassicas) which includes kale, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. It is basically a cabbage with edible shoots - what we eat is a bouquet of flower buds. When it first made its way to England they called it ‘Italian asparagus’. If you eat your stalks (they’re very nutritious and best peeled) the likeness is easy to appreciate.
Broccoli can be started from seed or as seedlings in Spring and Autumn. In Autumn, plant at a time cool enough to avoid the pesky white cabbage butterfly but early enough so plants can get well established before the cold weather. By planting a punnet of seedlings every few weeks you might achieve a continuous winter and spring supply. There is no doubt that home grown broccoli is a whole lot tastier, darker green and more nutrient dense.
A healthy soil, rich in nutrients. Before planting, mix in compost plus some blood and bone, sheep pellets or other well rotted animal manure. Brassicas are heavy feeders. They thrive in soil that has been enriched with a ‘cover crop’ of lupins dug in the previous spring. They’ll also respond with healthy productive growth if fed regularly (little and often is best) during the growing season. Apply balanced fertiliser as a side dressing every three or four weeks once they reach 10-15cm tall.
Lime raises the pH of acidic soils (traditionally called ‘sweetening the soil’) which is important in deterring clubroot disease. Garden lime and general fertiliser should not be applied at the same time.
Crop rotation prevents the spread of clubroot, a soil borne fungus, which affects all brassicas. Avoid planting brassicas in the same soil two years running, longer if possible. Experts recommend three or four year cycles for commercial crops.
Water and mulch to keep the soil evenly moist.
Watch out for white butterflies that are still laying eggs in warm weather. Their hungry green caterpillars can decimate small seedlings overnight. The spray-free way to make sure you’re not picking the caterpillars out from your broccoli florets is to cover the young crop with mesh. It can be removed at the end of autumn when the butterflies are no longer flying.
Tip: Feed seedlings with seaweed solution for strong healthy roots. The ancestor of the cabbage family was a seaside plant, so it’s not surprising that brassicas thrive on seaweed.